Turning Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs

Adapted from “The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs” by Dr. Marcia Reynolds (Berrett-Koehler, October 2014).

In order to define who we are and make sense of the world around us, our brains develop constructs and rules that we strongly protect without much thought.
Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we get stuck in our automatic thought-processing and fool ourselves into thinking we are acting consciously and willfully. “Our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of non-conscious processing,” Gazzaniga says. When someone asks you why you did something, you immediately come up with an ad hoc answer that fits the situation even if the response doesn’t make complete sense. These quick interpretations actually constrain the brain, making human beings narrow-minded by nature.

To help people think differently, you have to disturb the automatic processing. This is best done by challenging the beliefs that created the frames and surfacing the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping the constructs in place. There needs to be a hole in the force field that protects their sense of reality before they will actively explore, examine, and change their beliefs and behavior.
People need to be aroused by surprising statements about their behavior and by questions that make them stop and think about what they are saying. If you break through their mental frames, they will stare at you for a moment as their brains look for ways to make sense of what they are considering. Then a burst of adrenaline could cause an emotional reaction, anything from nervous laughter to anger, before an insight emerges. If you act on this moment by helping to solidify the new awareness, their minds will change. If you do not facilitate this process, a strong ego may work backward to justify the previous behavior.

What is the Discomfort Zone?
The Discomfort Zone is the moment of uncertainty when people are most open to learning. An emotional reaction occurs at this moment, indicating a chance for the person to develop a new perspective, see a different solution to the problem, and potentially grow as a person. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life,” define this moment as feeling temporarily naked. “Because when you’re naked, you’re most vulnerable. And when you’re vulnerable, that’s when radical growth happens.”

Because emotions are involved, the discomfort can be felt by both people in the conversation. The leader or coach’s discomfort is secondary to the process, however, and might not even exist with practice. For true shifts in thinking and behavior to occur, you must be willing to challenge a person’s beliefs, interrupt his patterns, and short-circuit the conviction to his logic even when it feels uncomfortable. This is a Discomfort Zone conversation.

There is a range of possible reactions when you do this. The realization could be minimal, with the person responding, “Oh, yeah, I see what you mean.” On the other end of the spectrum, a person could gasp with embarrassment and then beg for time to think about what occurred, especially if previous behavior has been destructive and he or she did not recognize the impact until that moment. Many times people will laugh at themselves; they might even get angry when it is difficult for them to accept the truth.

Consider your own experiences. The sudden, new, and amazing solution to a problem probably didn’t come to you as you hovered over your desk rearranging the details. The truth about your future didn’t appear to you as you sat in the dark ruminating over past conversations. Profound changes to your personal and professional life weren’t caused by a self-generated flash of insight. The sudden solution, amazing truth, and profound understanding that gave you no choice but to change your mind most likely came as a result of a disruptive question and deep reflection initiated by someone else.

For the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, you can’t fully explore your own thoughts. Your brain will block and desensitize you to self-imposed exploration. When someone you trust adeptly challenges your reasoning and asks you the powerful question that breaks down your protective frame, your brain is forced to reorder data in your long-term memory. For a moment, the breakdown feels awkward. You might feel a pinch of anger or sadness, but then you are just as likely to laugh at what you see… after you gasp. There must be an emotional stake in the game for restructuring to occur.

The Best Times to Have a Discomfort Zone Conversation
Picture yourself sitting in a conversation with a woman you know is smart and committed to her work, but she is complaining about a situation and feels stuck with no solution and she is resisting the changes others have told her to make. Maybe you are wondering why she can’t see what’s best for her. You want her to quit focusing on the problem. You want her to try something new. You want her to move on. You’ve given her feedback. She discounts your view. You’ve suggested solutions, but the conversation just circles back to what is not working. This is a perfect time for a Discomfort Zone conversation!

Adapted from “The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs” by Dr. Marcia Reynolds (Berrett-Koehler, October 2014).

Dr. Marcia Reynolds works with clients around the world who seek to develop effective leaders. She understands organizational cultures, what blocks communication and innovation, and what is needed to bring people together for better results. She is the author of "The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, October 2014).

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